Supreme Court decides on straw-purchasing and firearms sales

The Supreme Court decided earlier this week that a man who bought a gun for his uncle, under his own name, violated a federal gun control law, even though his uncle wasn’t prohibited from owning a gun.

Gun_Show400In a 5-4 decision in Abramski v. United States, the Court upheld Bruce Abramski’s conviction for buying a Glock 19 handgun for his uncle Angel Alvarez.

Link: Read the Court’s opinion

The Gun Control Act (18 U.S.C. §921) has regulated firearms dealers’ gun sales since 1968. The Act states that certain persons—felons, drug addicts, mentally ill—may not purchase or possess firearms of any sort. It also forbids licensed firearms dealers from selling guns to these people.

The Act also prohibits the sale of firearms to persons “not appear[ing] in person” at the gun shop or the purchase of a gun on behalf of another person. Furthermore, the Act states that it is unlawful for any person who intends to purchase a weapon to make false written statements for the purpose of deceiving a gun store owner “with respect to any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale.”

In order to implement the Gun Control Act, the ATF has a form (Form 4473) with a questionnaire to be filled out by the gun purchaser before the gun is sold.

Abramski had been two years removed from his job as a police officer when he arranged to buy a Glock 19 handgun for his uncle, Angel Alvarez. Abramski believed that the gun shop owner would give him a discount if he waved his expired police credentials.

Alvarez had sent Abramski a check for $400; he included “Glock 19 handgun” on the memo line. Abramski went to a local, federally licensed gun shop, purchased the Glock, and filled out the Form 4473 falsely, indicating that he was the actual buyer although he was a straw-purchaser. The gun shop sold Abramski the Glock after he passed the background check. Abramski the transferred the gun to his uncle at a federally licensed gun dealership in compliance with state law.

Later, Abramski became a suspect in a different crime, and federal agents discovered Abramski’s $400 check receipt while conducting a lawful search at Abramski’s home.

Abramski was indicted by a grand jury for violating the Gun Control Act, but he argued that his misrepresentation on the form was not “material to the lawfulness of the sale” because Alvarez was eligible to own the handgun.

In the majority decision, Justice Elena Kagan argued that allowing straw-purchases of firearms would enable those groups specifically prohibited from owning guns to obtain them

“But under Abramski’s reading, the statutory terms would be utterly ineffectual, because the identification and background check would be of the wrong person,” Kagan said. “The provisions would evaluate the eligibility of mere conduits, while allowing every criminal (and drug addict and so forth) to escape that assessment and walk away with a weapon.”

In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the restrictions for gun ownership in the Gun Control Act of 1968 only apply to the person at the counter making the transaction, and the federal law made no distinction between people who bought guns for themselves and buyers who wanted to pass guns on to others.

The decision “makes it a federal crime for one lawful gun owner to buy a gun for another lawful gun owner,” Scalia said.

Scalia provided three illustrations particularly that were in conflict under the majority’s ruling: purchasing a gun as a gift, purchasing a gun for resale, and purchasing a gun intended as a raffle prize.

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Supreme Court decides on straw-purchasing and firearms sales

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